I did not follow the Big South for the most part in its early days, being too young to remember the days before Gregg Marshall and Winthrop dominated. For that matter, few did follow the conference in its early days. The conference was created in 1983 by Baptist College (now Charleston Southern) as a vehicle to get ambitious schools in the region to join Division I. Like the Great West today, the Big South did not have an automatic bid for its first eight years of existence. Most schools in the early years of the Big South were transitioning to Division I, and membership changed quite frequently. Two schools from Georgia decided to go back to Division II, Armstrong Atlantic from Savannah in 1987 and Augusta State in 1991 as they formed the Peach Belt Conference, which has been a fairly solid Division II conference since then. It was this transitional period where the Big South struggled to gain recognition and respect.
But what helped the conference in this transitional struggle was other established mid-majors joining Division I. Davidson spent two years in the Big South in the early 1990s after dropping scholarship football in the late 1980s before the SoCon was willing to accept them again in 1992. But before them was Campbell, an independent since the late 1970s that found a home in the Big South when the conference started in 1983. The Camels then played at tiny Carter Gym, where they were usually among the most competitive schools in the conference in all sports. The Camels won the Big South in 1992, and became the first champion to make the NCAA Tournament automatically without having to play in.
But Campbell would get caught up in a feud with the conference, which would set the Big South back again. The school had a policy against playing on Sundays at this time, and this made it hard for conference schedules in some sports such as baseball to adjust for this. Until recently, Charleston Southern (also a conservative Baptist school) also never played on campus on Sundays (but could play off campus). One book I read in an English class at HPU was by a Campbell professor on a relationship between a Baptist woman and an Episcopalian man. While the book was sympathetic to both sides, the book got the professor fired from Campbell. The book was about being able to overcome differences to make things work, and the Big South and Campbell were not able to make things work. The conference would get the worse end of the deal, as Campbell went to the Trans America Athletic Conference (re-named the Atlantic Sun a few years later) which at the time was a slight step up. The Big South lost another member, and this would cost the conference its automatic bid in 1995. Charleston Southern won the tournament, but Campbell's defection left them home during the NCAA Tournament.
But as time passed, this move did not work well for Campbell either. The Atlantic Sun membership has shifted greatly in recent years, as schools have constantly defected like in the early days of the Big South. The Camels were also on the eastern fringe of the Atlantic Sun, requiring much more travel than one would expect in a mid-major conference. The Atlantic Sun has been only able to stay afloat through accepting new members coming up from Division II. Meanwhile, the Big South became more established in the 2000s and conference membership was much more stable. 15 years after they left the conference, it was now Campbell that had the wrong end of the deal from leaving the Big South. With new facilities being built such as the Pope Convocation Center, the Camels became more competitive, and looked to move away from the Atlantic Sun.
So the Camels tried to get back in the Big South, and finally in 2009 the Big South let them back in after 15 years away. This school year is Campbell's first in Big South competition since the 1993-94 school year. The Big South extended the invite despite Campbell's not having scholarship football, which is progress in the current conference realignment phase. This was a conference shift made for geographical reasons, something our friends above the Red Line could learn from.
Tonight Campbell would play at Winthrop. Winthrop has been the standard of excellence in Big South basketball until recently. From reading their message boards, Winthrop fans have been very unhappy about the state of the program since Gregg Marshall left. Randy Peele has won two conference championships at WU, but Eagle fans want dominance like they remembered. But as some of the old-timers at Winthrop can recall, Winthrop was a very different place before Marshall came.
Before Marshall was hired in 1998, the Winthrop Coliseum was never full. Average attendance was usually around 700 to 800 fans in one of the conference's largest venues that seated 6,100. Winthrop only 20 years prior had been a school that was only for women looking to become teachers. As a result, a tradition in men's basketball was slow to come even with great facilities. The Coliseum was more of a building designed for special campus and community events in Rock Hill rather than a showcase for high-quality mid-major hoops. But Gregg Marshall changed that after having been an assistant under John Kresse at College of Charleston. Marshall finally got Winthrop to realize their potential and won the Big South tournament seven of the next nine years before he left for Wichita State. His assistant Randy Peele then came in and instilled the same fundamental basketball in the Eagles, and won two of the next three conference tournaments after Marshall left. The once empty Coliseum was now over half full for most Winthrop games.
But the Eagles have gotten off to a bad start, which has become more common since Marshall left. Many Winthrop fans fear that Peele's tenure will be similar to that of his at UNC Greensboro, where he won under Mike Dement's players but failed to win after that. But for all the complaining, Winthrop entered tonight's game with a 4-3 conference record, and would have a chance at third place if they could get by the Camels at home. And with league leader UNC Asheville not eligible to host the conference championship game currently, that could be big.
Early on, it looked good for the Eagles. Midway through the first half, the Eagles led 22-9. The Eagles played with good ball control and defense; two fundamentals that helped Marshall win championships. It might not win fans over or help recruit the best athletes, who are turned off by slow defensive basketball. But as Marshall has found, it does result in winning, which pleases fans and players alike. Campbell attempted to run against this defense and usually turned the ball over in doing so. Sometimes the Camels could draw fouls, only to miss both free throw attempts. It was a very frustrating effort for the Camels in the first half, but once they hit outside shots against the Winthrop defense they were able to narrow the lead to 31-26 at halftime.
Early on the crowd was pretty good by Big South standards, but not by Winthrop standards in the 2000s. Two large groups of children came along with their families, one to perform the national anthem and one to perform gymnastics at halftime. Once those groups left, the Coliseum began to become empty again just like the old days. The energy was not there anymore, and this would hurt the Eagles.
Winthrop led by eight early in the second half, but could never pull away. Slow defensive basketball keeps you in the game, but it also makes it hard to put the game away. Campbell was always an offensive spark away from taking over. The Camels never got out on a run, but slowly were able to keep inching their way forward until they tied the game with two minutes left. It was at this point that the Eagles failed to capitalize on their chances, missing fast-break layups and free throws. Campbell took the lead and nearly pulled away, but a missed a free throw and a turnover gave the Eagles one last chance. Winthrop tried two 3-pointers and missed them both in the final 10 seconds, and Campbell won 54-51. The Camels caught Coastal for second place, while Winthrop went back into the middle of the Big South.
It is good to see a geographical fit back in the Big South, and to see their investment in athletics pay off. While it seems weird as a High Point fan to have Campbell in our conference, hopefully years from now it won't feel weird and a new rivalry can form. And for Winthrop, not winning all the time is part of the natural order of things. Regardless of what you might feel like you deserve as a fan, your team will not win every conference title. Every Big South fan needs to have moments with his or her team doing well, and hopefully the conference will continue to evolve as it realizes its past.
CAMPBELL 54, at WINTHROP 51 01/17/2012
CAMPBELL 12-8 (6-2) -- M. Harris 1-6 1-6 3; T. Freeman 4-8 1-1 9; D. White 3-8 0-0 6; E. Griffin 7-10 0-4 14; L. Merthie 4-9 3-4 14; A. Ryan 2-5 0-0 6; J. Wright 1-3 0-0 2; R. Ferguson 0-1 0-0 0; A. Horton 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-50 5-15 54. WINTHROP 7-12 (4-4) -- A. Jones 6-16 3-5 17; G. Valentine 3-6 2-5 8; R. Middleton 0-5 0-0 0; J. Jerome 0-4 2-4 2; J. Bourne 1-3 3-6 5; M. Morgan 2-6 2-2 6; A. Smith 1-4 0-0 3; L. Brown 1-4 0-0 2; D. Henry 1-3 0-0 3; G. Gamble 2-6 0-0 5. Totals 17-57 12-22 51.
Three-point goals: CAMP 5-13 (L. Merthie 3-5; D. White 0-2; E. Griffin 0-1; A. Ryan 2-3; T. Freeman 0-2), WINT 5-22 (A. Jones 2-7; M. Morgan 0-1; G. Gamble 1-5; R. Middleton 0-1; J. Jerome 0-2; D. Henry 1-2; A. Smith 1-4); Rebounds: CAMP 44 (M. Harris 12), WINT 32 (G. Valentine 7); Assists: CAMP 13 (A. Ryan 3), WINT 10 (R. Middleton 4); Total Fouls -- CAMP 16, WINT 18; Fouled Out: CAMP-None; WINT-None.